Living like the dead

Living like the dead


In a middle-class, residential area of Hong Kong, not far from its wealthy shopping and financial districts, 24 people like Kam Chung live in "coffin homes": individual wooden boxes packed into a single apartment of just over 50 square meters (500 square feet).

. Hong Kong, China. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A charity worker speaks to a man who lives in one of these “coffins”, which measure 2 by 0.7 metres (6 by 3 feet). It can cost 1450 Hong Kong dollars ($180) a month to call one of these tiny spaces home.

. Hong Kong, China. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Although the residents may be cramped, the landlords don’t feel the squeeze. By packing so many people into a single room, they are able to maximise the money they make from rent.

. Hong Kong, China. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

For people like King, 18, space has always been hard to come by in the incredibly densely populated island city of Hong Kong, where developers plant high-rises on every available inch of ground.

“In a crazy chase for more dollars, landlords in the island city are building something that would be unthinkable in the rest of the world."
Damir Sagolj, Reuters Photographer

Just around the corner from where Blade Runner met Bruce Lee, in the neighbourhood where Hong Kong’s millions are made, 24 people live their lives in coffins.

For them this is home – but their houses are just wooden boxes, 6 by 3 feet, which are nicknamed coffins and packed into a single room to maximise profits for the rich.

In a crazy chase for more dollars, landlords in the island city are building something that would be unthinkable in the rest of the world – a beehive for people from the margins of society. The math provides its own cruel logic: 24 times 1450 Hong Kong dollars per month is more than any single family would pay for this room of just over 500 square feet.

Mister T, the only inhabitant of these coffin homes who did not want his picture taken (“I have a grown daughter, she would be ashamed”) says that they are the pits. After spending time in the United States, including a few years behind bars, this is as low as it gets for him. He spits through broken front teeth, like a caricature of a street gangster, and grumbles that this is – “better than nothing, but not as good as the real life.”

Others here seem to be more relaxed about living in coffins. They cope with their struggles in a town where living space gets smaller at the same rate that mobile phone screens get bigger, and where the price of rent is painfully expensive, just like the cost of living in general.

Blade Runner went digital. Bruce Lee got a full-time job at Madame Tussauds. There are no more heroes in the neighbourhood to help fight injustice. Except maybe Miss Sze, a community organiser with the sweetest “everything is going to be okay” look I have ever seen.

Being the only woman in the room, Sze goes from coffin to coffin to hear what residents have to say. Chung’s mother died and he lost his place in the queue for a proper community apartment. Kam has to wear a medical corset for his bad back and can barely move. And young King is only here for a month and wants to leave.

Miss Sze says that over 100,000 people in Hong Kong live in inadequate housing. Living space is always at a premium here and it’s not easy to find decent accommodation if you are not wearing a silk suit, gold watch and everything that comes with it.